Evaluating excellence in arts-based research: a case study

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 16 June 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

peacock-536478__340I recently wrote on this topic citing the work of Sarah J Tracy from Arizona State University, who developed a set of eight criteria for assessing the quality of arts-based and other forms of qualitative and mixed-methods research. Now I propose to apply those criteria to an example of arts-based research, to find out how they can work in practice.

The research example I have chosen is by Jennifer Lapum and her colleagues from Toronto in Canada, who investigated 16 patients’ experiences of open-heart surgery. Their work is methodologically interesting because they used arts-based techniques, not only for data generation, but also for data analysis and dissemination. They published an account of their work in Qualitative Inquiry which I will interrogate here.

Lapum  gathered narrative data from two interviews with post-operative patients, one while they were still in hospital and the other some weeks after returning home. Also, journals were kept by patients between the two interviews. She then put together a multi-disciplinary team of people, including artists, researchers, designers, and medical staff, and they spent a year doing arts-based analysis of the patients’ stories. This included metaphor analysis, poetic inquiry, sketching, concept mapping, and construction of photographic images. The team then developed an installation, covering 1,739 square feet, with seven sections representing the seven stages of a patient’s journey. These sections were arranged along a labyrinthine route, with the operating room at the centre, all hung with textile compositions incorporating poems and photographic images that had been generated at the analytic stage. Further dissemination via a short video on YouTube gives some idea of how it would be to visit this installation.

So how does this research fit with Tracy’s eight criteria? First we ask: is the research topic worthy? I would argue that in this case the answer is yes. Open-heart surgery must be a daunting prospect, even though the rewards can be immense. Lapum’s work offers potential patients and carers some insight into the journey they may take, and offers medical and other relevant staff an increased understanding of patients’ experiences. This is likely to improve outcomes for patients.

Second, is this project richly rigorous? The sample size is small, but the data was carefully constructed. Also, the analytic process was extremely thorough, with a multi-disciplinary team spending a year working with the data. Therefore I would conclude that this criterion has been met.

Do we have sincerity? Is the research reflexive, honest, and transparent? The published article is quite explicit about the methods used, and credits several people who have been involved with the process. The article asserts that the research was reflective, though the article itself is not. Nor do the writers outline all the decisions they took in the course of analysis and dissemination. However, space in a journal article is limited – but there is no mention of what was left out and why. So the research as presented here is sincere up to a point, but there is scope for more reflexivity and transparency.

What about credibility? There is certainly thick description and multiplicity of voices and perspectives in this research. Also, while the research team did not include participants as such, contributions were made by ‘knowledge users’ including cardiovascular health practitioners and former heart surgery patients. So, in Tracy’s terms, this research is definitely credible.

The next criterion is resonance. The installation certainly had aesthetic merit. It was generalisable to some extent: certainly to heart surgery patients and practitioners from other geographic locations, and perhaps to patients and practitioners of other kinds of major organ surgery. And it was also transferable: ‘we found people of diverse backgrounds not only resonated with the work but were also able to consider the application of these ideas to their lives and/or professional field’ (Lapum et al 2012:221). So, yes, it was resonant.

Did this research make a significant contribution? It evidently extended the knowledge, and may have improved the practice, of the research team. The project was methodologically unusual, and explicitly aimed to engage the audience’s aesthetic and emotional faculties, as well as their intellectual abilities, in responding to the research findings. However, there is no report of the installation’s impact on its audience but, again, this may be due to lack of space. So I would argue that this criterion was met, and the research may in fact have made a more significant contribution than we can discern from one journal article.

How ethical was the research? The article does not mention ethics, though it seems inevitable that the research must have received formal ethical approval. The level of thought and care applied to the research suggests that it was ethical, though this is implicit rather than explicit. But, once again, this may be due to space constraints.

And finally, does the research have meaningful coherence? The article tells an engaging and comprehensible story, so yes, it does.

It is perhaps unfair to judge a long and complex research project on the basis of a single journal article of just a few thousand words. Lapum and her colleagues have published several articles about their research; to make a full judgement I should really read them all. However, if the authors had carried out an analysis of their article based on Tracy’s criteria, they might have chosen to add a sentence or two about what they left out, a paragraph or two on reflexivity, a short description of the impact of the installation on its audience, and some information about ethics. The article as it stands is excellent; with these amendments, it could have been outstanding. This demonstrates that Tracy’s criteria are useful for assessing not only research itself, but also reports of research.

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